Western Balkans route still preference of most refugees

Refugees boarding a train on the Greece/Macedonia border. [Freedom House/Flickr]

The steady stream of refugees through the Balkans continues – while the national governments of their desired destinations are tightening their asylum laws in reaction. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Half a million refugees have already arrived in Greece this year. Tens of thousands are finding their way toward Austria, Germany and Sweden. Hundreds of thousands are still waiting in Turkey and the European governments are trying to use legal means to stem the influx.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR’s latest figures show that the Western Balkans route is by far the most used gateway into Europe. As things stood at the beginning of the week, around 502,000 arrivals had been registered in Greece. In total, more than 643,000 people have managed to cross the Mediterranean this year alone, yet only an estimated fifth of refugees take the North Africa-Italy route.

>>Read: How Germany actually deals with 10,000 refugees a day

As of Tuesday morning (3 November), there were around 27,500 people waiting in the Greek islands to be registered and to be transported to the mainland. The high numbers are likely down to refugees being concerned about border closures in Austria, Germany and Sweden, so they want to journey on as quickly as possible. The fast-approaching harsh weather conditions of the winter months is also on their minds.

Higher proportion of women and children

The UNHCR expects in the next week that up to 4,000 people will arrive every day on the Slovenian-Austrian border. Currently, it is estimated that there are around 40,000 people on the Western Balkans route, making their way from Greece through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

The demographic of the asylum seekers is also of interest. According to the UNHCR, around 64% are Syrians, 22% are Afghans, and 7% are Iraqi. The number of male refugees, which in the summer stood at 80%, has also changed, with the current figure at 62%, with 14% women and 22% children.

Integration prioritised

Upon arrival in Austria, refugees are not only to be registered, but steps are to be made to integrate them into society. In a few weeks, an “etiquette guide” should be ready, which will outline the key points of European society. The measure was announced by Austria’s Minister of the Interior, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, at a Council of Europe conference in Sarajevo.

>>Read: Austria shelves border fence

Since refugees come from diverse and varied cultures, it is important to inform them of the fundamental rights and foundations of the new society they find themselves in, and urge them to respect it. Only when fundamental values are respected, can cohabitation and integration work.

The minister said that, “It is not acceptable that some men would not respect the authority of a policewoman just because she is a woman. Religion must not be placed above the law of the land and used to radicalise people.” The forthcoming guide shouldn’t just be reserved for newcomers either, as there are migrant families that have lived in Austria for years that still, for example, deny their daughters a proper education based on outdated values.

Tightening of asylum law

Now that the EU has established hotspots in the locations most affected by refugees, asylum laws have been tightened and loopholes gradually closed. After Germany passed stricter legislation in October, Sweden is set to discuss a similar measure. Austria is also on track to establish new conditions. The new asylum law can be approved at the earliest in December, but is already set to come into force on 15 November.

A key point in the new legislation is that an evaluation of an individual’s asylum status will now be carried out after three years, not five. The Austrian Vice-Chancellor, Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP) believes that the new law will send a “signal” that there are limits and that they are near to being reached.

Call for a common asylum plan

There is criticism from various quarters, ranging from the opposition to certain NGOs and aid organisations. The additional bureaucratic costs and difficulty of integration are the main bones of contention.

>>Read: Austrian governor pushes for military deployment

For the regional governors of Austria, the asylum law is merely a first step. They want more financial support from Vienna, and are basing their direction on the general mood of the population, which is generally concerned about the situation.

The Austrian Greens have put forward the idea of a shared plan between Germany, Sweden and Austria to tackle the Western Balkans route, as the issue is predicted to remain high on the agenda for the foreseeable future. While not yet fully-formed, it is an idea well-worth considering.

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